Brian Mackey: 'The Conspirator' takes fresh look at Lincoln assassination

Brian Mackey

“The Conspirator,” the new movie about the only woman to stand trial for the plot to murder Abraham Lincoln, was screened for an invited audience Tuesday evening at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Ill.

Chairs were added to the 250-seat Union Theatre to accommodate a crowd that included members of the ALPLM Foundation and Illinois State Bar Association, teachers, students and community and political leaders.

Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and Springfield Mayor Frank Edwards were in attendance. Gov. Pat Quinn greeted attendees in the museum plaza, but an ALPLM spokesman said he left before the screening.

The film will be released in theaters April 15, a day after the anniversary of the shooting.

Directed by Robert Redford, “The Conspirator” opens on a classic Civil War tableau: heaps of dead and wounded Union soldiers strewn across a smoking battlefield. When the medics come to help Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), he insists they take care of his buddy first — that’s just the kind of man he is.

Jump two years to April 14, 1865. Capt. Aiken is at a party celebrating the end of the war. He was hoping to meet the president, but is told Lincoln won’t be coming.

“It seems Mrs. Lincoln prefers an evening at the theater to a room full of soldiers,” someone says. You know where this is going.

In a just a few fast-pace minutes, “The Conspirator” hits enough historical highlights to satisfy all but the most demanding Lincoln buffs, from the line in “Our American Cousin” when John Wilkes Booth chose to fire –– “you sockdologizing old man-trap” –– to his shouting “sic semper tyrannis” –– Latin for “thus always to tyrants” –– before he ran from Ford’s Theatre.

But the fast-pace opening is all just a windup for what soon settles into a stately, standard courtroom drama. Mary Surratt (Robin Wright), who owned the boarding house where Booth and others plotted the assassination, is arrested and charged with treason. We learn the U.S. government had never executed a woman, but Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) thinks that swift, severe justice is just what the fragile re-United States needs.

Surratt is taken before a military tribunal at which one of Lincoln’s pallbearers is the chief judge. Aiken is asked to defend her, and although he seems unconvinced of the merits of his own case, he begins to realize that something bigger is at stake: Should constitutional protections matter at a time of national crisis?

Watching Aiken struggle with these questions, it’s hard not to think of contemporary issues like the status of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

At a Q-and-A session after the movie, producer Brian Peter Falk acknowledged those comparisons. But then he said the script was written 18 years ago, long before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The Conspirator” is Redford’s eighth film as a director. His other movies include “The Horse Whisperer” (1998), “Quiz Show” (1994) and “A River Runs Through It” (1992).

The film was shot on a relatively small budget and without the backing of a major studio. With a distinct color palette, it pays careful attention to period details that are the bread and butter of this sort of movie.

Washington in 1865 was a relatively refined place. This is a world of gentlemen’s clubs and ball gowns — there’s no evidence of the dirty, hardscrabble living of a movie like last year’s “True Girt.”

Falk, joined on stage by co-producer Bill Holderman, said this was the first movie made by The American Film Co. He said they hoped it would lead to other films about events in America’s past.

“The Conspirator” is an auspicious beginning, and more films like it would be a welcome change of pace at the multiplex.

Brian Mackey can be reached at 217-747-9587.